Sanders Got It Right When He Went to the Vatican


Whether he got invited or manipulated an invitation from the Vatican to attend the conference on the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus (April 15-16), is now irrelevant. The moment was to recall many thoughts on Pope John Paul’s 1991 update of the Rerum Novarum” the landmark encyclical by Pope Leo XIII a hundred years earlier on the rights and duties of capital and labor. Bernie Sanders, the secular Jew, indicated his economic views had something in common not only with Catholics, but with many other open-minded individuals. There is something wrong in the state of Denmark!

When you hear remarks about a society which is exploitative, consumptive and non-communitarian, is it Bernie or the pope who is speaking? Or when you read words that there are elite groups which are benefitting from a growing environmental imbalance, or there is economic inequality and social injustice, are those from a papal encyclical or a stump speech? Or who is in favor of blocking “shameful forms of exploitation of the most vulnerable workers,” of immigrants and others on the margins of society?

So Sen. Sanders flew to Rome to be part of a commemoration that reflected many Catholic social notions. Among them are the positions that the Church can live with an economic system that promotes free enterprise, in which the rule of law is observed, and that judges and politicians are not extensions of the business world; that workers have rights (e.g. unions); that there be a reasonable distribution of the wealth generated which is beneficial for all; that there can be protection of private property, but that right is not absolute; that families should be served by the economy rather than the reverse; the making of money should not turn into greed, creating a new idol; there is a time and place for governments to intervene and protect its more fragile members, but never too strong to kill personal initiative, etc.

Does providing free college tuition mean a giveaway or smart business for the future? If Franklin D. Roosevelt really did try to give out free lunches, is investing in the work-force not a wise move with all the world-wide global competition? How do we expect to continue to lead by innovation if we do not have prepared people? John Paul said that the greatest riches of a nation are its people!

Should Wall Street be policed and regulated? Maybe it is my Augustinian idea of human nature being tainted when left to itself, but I do not trust any person or institution which has too much power and no oversight. Will the economy suffer from this? Surely not fancy restaurants, yacht builders and real estate agents of mansions.

Will a minimum wage of 15 dollars an hour break the economy and lose jobs? Or will it demand that companies hire more workers to meet the demands of more powerful consumers? How can we allow the world’s richest family, the Waltons, to continue with their salary policies which make us taxpayers pay for food stamps for their employees?

We see that Brazil’s economy is going through a crisis right now, China is sluggish, and Russia is in trouble. Yet we continue to bury our heads in economic sands, hold a myth that big trouble cannot happen here. We have already seen people in the streets demanding higher wages to make ends meet. An empty stomach can motivate one to take enormous risks.

Some feel that the Church, by wanting to help the poor, takes away the ability to get rich and make money. Catholic thinkers like Hilaire Belloc denied that the Church was against some people becoming richer than others. Belloc did not want to equalize wealth, but to protect the small farmer, the family landowner, the small craftsman, and the small retail trader. His “Differential Taxation” on larger entities was to make the playing field leveler. Most economists agree that small businesses are the backbone of a strong economy. To get America going again, they may well be the ones who create the jobs and distribute wealth.

The Church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. Or as Pope Francis says, “Money must serve, not rule!” And John Paul II had said that it is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — the firm’s most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Why are so many commentators talking about the rich getting richer and the poor poorer? Check out “Rich Get Richer, Poor Get Poorer,” Gawker, 09/05/14. For a counter opinion, read The Rich Are Getting Richer and the Poor Are Getting Poorer, clichés of progressivism, Foundation of Economic Education, 01/16/2015

Many a century ago, John Chrysostom preached, “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

As I write this, Bernie Sanders has only the slimmest of chances to capture the Democratic nomination for President. But his insistence on talking about economic issues in moral terms, and that our current system needs corrections and changes, have made his presence significant and meaningful. Since Leo XIII (in 1891), popes and other church theologians have been warning about injustices in the market place. May the politicians finally do something about them.

Father Donnell Kirchner, CSsR, received a degree in moral theology in Rome and taught for 39 years as a Redemptorist priest in Brazil, teaching at a regional pastoral institute in Manaus. He is currently working with theologians in Chicago.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2016

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